Imagine a world where Quentin Tarantino took the Back to the Future and Saw movies, mashed them together, and turned them into a video game. I present to you, Zero Time Dilemma.
Warning: There are minor plot device spoilers for 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward in this review.
Zero Time Dilemma is the third and final entry to the Zero Escape series, following Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (or 999 for short) and Virtue’s Last Reward, which released earlier this year for the PS4 as a two-pack called The Nonary Games. While the basic premise is the same as its predecessors – nine people are trapped in a warehouse and must try to solve puzzles to escape without getting killed, while unraveling the mystery of who is holding them captive – it does a lot to set it apart from the previous entries as well.
While 999 and VLR put you in control of just one character, ZTD splits the large group into three smaller teams, with the player controlling the leader of each team. And instead of playing yet another varied version of the Nonary Game for a third time, here the groups must play the Decision Game, often your decisions being who must die so that you may survive.
Where it really deviates is that while the previous games’ plots always moved forward (as forward as games that heavily feature time travel and reality jumping can be, anyway), Zero Time Dilemma takes the Pulp Fiction route and allows you to pick and choose segments of the story to play in any order you like. After each new puzzle is solved and 90 in-game minutes pass, the segment ends with your current team being injected with drugs that make them pass out and forget the last 90 minutes they spent awake. You could play a segment that happens close to the end of the game, with several other cast mates already dead due to events you have yet to see or play through. It is up to you to piece the puzzles together and figure out what’s going on, and which timeline will ultimately lead to your victory and safety.
As with both games before it, Zero Time Dilemma’s greatest strength is its storytelling. You might get confused by a lot of technical mumbo jumbo regarding time travel, the way certain characters can jump across realities, and the moral and ethical implications that bely your decisions. But, ultimately, if you’ve played 999 and VLR before this (and you really, really should, otherwise most of the story here will be completely lost on you), you should grasp the concepts pretty quick.
Setting aside the convolution and mixing of real theories and made up nonsense, ZTD mostly excels at tying up all the loose threads from the first two games. Main characters from both 999 and VLR return here for some heavy-hitting and emotional conclusions, along with newcomers that range from completely random and seemingly superfluous, to literal deus ex machinas that are essential to solving the biggest mysteries. It’s far from perfect, however, as any media incorporating time travel as a main element is bound to leave a few threads hanging. The story is also arguably the weakest of the trilogy, but that could be marked down to the fact that by the time you reach this third game, jumping between histories to change your future is commonplace and no longer a mind-blowing twist. Regardless, the game wraps up well for the most part, and those leftover threads are more nitpicky gripes than anything.
The animation throughout the series is at its peak here, as one should expect from the third part of a trilogy, but unfortunately it still leaves plenty to be desired. The mouths never quite move in sync with the dialogue, and though the character models are lovingly polished, the animations are frequently awkward and rough. Considering this is a visual novel – meaning you’ll spend just as much time watching cutscenes (if not more) than actually solving puzzles or playing the game – it would be nice to see more fluidity to those scenes. Many emotional moments lose significant impact thanks to janky animations.
Speaking of the puzzles, the escape-the-room segments are as clever as ever, and have also evolved in a positive way from prior entries. Instead of being locked in a room where you must find a key to escape, your teams actively choose to look around and solve the puzzles, often not being locked in that specific room at all. It’s less “escape the room” and more “complete the objective/solve the greater puzzle,” and just that minor change to your end goal changes your mindset a surprising amount. You’re trapped in the facility, but you’re not trapped in any given room. You can go try a different puzzle segment at a different point in the game if you get stuck, then come back to it later. Sometimes this is even essential, as you might only find the passcode to move forward in a different timeline. It makes the Pulp Fiction style of gameplay, flicking backward and forward in time as you please, work extremely well.
The hiccup here that can be frustrating is that there are several puzzles throughout the game that are left completely to chance, such as a roll of the dice where you have to roll specific numbers, or picking one of a dozen lockers at random to find an item that can save your life. If even one of the dice is wrong, or you pick the wrong locker just once, you get a bad ending and must try again. Maybe luck will be in your favor, and you’ll roll what you need in just two or three tosses; maybe you’ll be there for fifteen minutes just rolling over and over and over. Leaving mandatory moments in the game up to chance makes sense in the context of the plot, but it certainly is annoying if you just think you’re stuck and missed something, but the reality is just that you’re unlucky.
At the end of it all, Zero Time Dilemma does a mountain of work in wrapping up the trilogy in a meaningful way while simultaneously giving new characters depth and tying the loose ends left from those returning. Generally, the game succeeds. A few bumps and swerves along the way might leave you scratching your head, but it still manages to shock and surprise with exciting and — no joke — jaw-dropping twists. Seriously, one moment made my mouth actually drop and hang open for the duration of the scene until I could properly wrap my head around what was happening.